Book Review – History

The Isles – Norman Davies
The English and their History – Robert Tombs

Occasionally and for amusement mainly, I blame all our current problems on Harold’s defeat in 1066 to the Normans. If only he had waited a day, got his breath back after all that marching North and walloping the Danes or Norsemen, then lets face it William would have have been toast. Or if only his right flank hadn’t fallen for that sneaky very un English feint that William pulled off, or if he had waited for his reinforcements, how different it all might have been.

But of course he didn’t and the rest as they say is history.

My argument, if it can be called that, goes that the Norman French swept away the English Aristocracy, changed the relationship between the people and the land and exiled the English language deep into the countryside and imposed Norman French on the political nation.

The English became a conquered people, ruled by a foreign Empire with a Monarchy that spoke French, and sent most of its time abroad, or rather at home in France. It was not until Richard II that things began to change and English, so long underground, surfaced, fitter and stronger.

Or so my argument goes.

There are echo’s down the ages. During the English Civil War the Diggers looked back fondly to a golden Anglo Saxon age before the burden of the Norman Yoke suppressed the people. An age where the relationship between Lord and Master was gentler, where access to the land more open to all the free people.

Tombs undermines this view of the past. Far from disappearing, English was one of the Trilingual languages, along with Norman French and Latin. Indeed its was written English or the process of writing English that fired the beginning of written French. Several great works of early French literature were in fact written in England, probably by English scribes.

Indeed one of the factors that made the Norman Conquest possible was the Anglo Saxon civil service. Perhaps the most sophisticated in Europe at the time, it made the process of conquest and administering the defeated nation possible. William or Guillaume le Batard did not make the same mistake that the Coalition forces made in Iraq in 2003.

Who says you can’t learn anything from history.

The Normans changed the English landscape by building monumental buildings and by securing the countryside by building castles, the Motte and Bailey beloved of my schooldays. There is one near to where I live. Overgrown with weeds one can still see the impact it must have made on the people who lived and farmed there.

Power was imposed by a combination of brutality and impressive architecture and a grudging nod in the direction to some sort of continuity.

So that’s my theory trashed then.

Or maybe not. Maybe Tombs is just a mischievous old historian of the traditional school, ploughing the establishment furrow, cleansing the Normans clean from the Saxon blood, warrior and innocents blood, that they, the Normans, spilt as they ravaged and laid waste to the North.

I turned for solace, for the hope of salvation to Davies’s the Isles. Here surely the nasty Norman, shining Saxon view of history would be proclaimed from everyone of the few pages that covered it.

I am still turning the pages.  Davies you see starts right back 400,000 years ago with the red lady, a skeleton, that was found in a cave in South Wales. Interestingly, she was a he but never let it be said that legend allowed facts to get in the way of a good story. 1066 is still some way off. The Romans still have to get here, and then of course the Saxons. And we have to consider the impact from all of the Islands point of view, not just the English. I should have known that though. After all, the clue is in both of the titles. I am still hopeful that Saxon honour will be restored. And anyway, I am enjoying the journey.

And there is a long way to go in both of them. Almost to the present day in fact. I might be some time. But the night’s a drawing in, it will soon be autumn, and my thoughts can turn to cocoa and a couple of decent history books.

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